Acts of the Apostles

views updated May 14 2018


A book of the New Testament that presents the life of the early Christian community in Jerusalem after the Ascension of Jesus and narrates the progress of the Christian movement from Jerusalem to Rome.

A Sequel to the Gospel of Luke . The canonical place of the Acts of the Apostles between the gospels and the letters of Paul is appropriate since its narrative of the development of Christianity not only continues the gospel story of Jesus but also provides a framework for understanding the letters of Paul. Although it appears in the canon after the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles is really to be regarded as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both contain a dedicatory preface addressed to a certain Theophilus. The reference to a "first book" in prologue of Acts (1:15) suggests that Acts was meant as a continuation of an earlier work. The identification of this "first book" with the Gospel of Luke is based on the relation of the two prologues as well as the connection between the first chapter of Acts and the last chapter of Luke. Verbal and thematic correspondence exist between Acts 1:4 and Lk 24:49, the instruction of Jesus to the disciples "not to depart from Jerusalem" and "to wait for the promise of the Father"; Acts 1:8 and Lk 24:4748, they will be witnesses in Jerusalem; Acts 1:2.9 and Lk 24:51, the ascension of Jesus as the conclusion of his earthly career. Apart from these, thematic continuity, parallelisms and geographical pattern substantiate the view that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written by the same author who meant them to be two volumes of a single work. The literary unity of Luke-Acts is now generally acknowledged though each represents a different genre. Some would, however, see both works as historical monograph, with the gospel having a biographical interest while Acts is focused on historical events.

Authorship . The name of the author is not mentioned in the text of Acts or in the Third Gospel. The earliest attributions of authorship can be found in the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke; Irenaeus' Adversus Haereses, 3.1.1; 3.14.1; and the Muratorian Canon. These writings of the late second century identify the author with Luke, the physician, an attendant and inseparable companion of Paul. It is said that he was an eyewitness of some of the events narrated in Acts, particularly those in the "we-passages" (Acts 16:1017; 20:515; 21:118; 27:128:16). It was also believed that Luke came from Antioch (cf. Irenaeus and Eusebius), that he wrote for the Gentiles (cf. Origen) and that he composed the Acts of the Apostles in Rome (Jerome, De Viris Illustribus 7). The Church Fathers did not mention the source of their information about Luke, but some could be inferred from 2 Tim 4:11 (companion of Paul); Col 4:14 (beloved physician); Phlm 24 (Paul's co-worker).

It is possible that the Luke mentioned in these letters was the same Luke whom tradition acknowledges as the author of Luke-Acts. It cannot be ascertained, however, that he actually wrote them. Whoever the real author may be, he has come to be known as Luke.

From the text of Luke-Acts, something can be said about the implied author. In the gospel prologue (Lk 1.14), he sees himself as a link in the chain of tradition but distinguishes himself from "the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word." His claim to write "an orderly account" subtly expresses a critical appraisal of his predecessors and offers a reason for his own literary endeavor. He presents his credential as a historian by assuring his addressees that his composition is based on reliable tradition and his own thorough investigation. His involvement in some of the events he narrates is supported by the impression of an eyewitness report in the "wepassages" in Acts.

The prologues and the language of the two-volume work suggest that the (implied) author's native tongue is Greek, that he is well educated and knows the conventions of Greco-Roman rhetoric. He is aware of the philosophical currents of his time and has a clear knowledge of the Septuagint, of Jewish culture and of Christian traditions. He is a well-traveled, cosmopolitan person with a broad vision of the Christian movement.

Date and Place of Composition . The connection to the Gospel of Luke makes the dating of Acts dependent on the dating of this gospel and the gospel of Mark. Since internal evidence makes it most plausible that Luke made use of the gospel of Mark, written ca. 6873 ce, his gospel must have been written some time after Mark's gospel had been circulated and attained recognition. Luke's gospel was written after the destruction of Jerusalem but before the persecution of Christians in the latter part of the reign of Domitian (ca. 8196) and even before the bitter controversy of Christianity and Pharisaic Judaism (ca. 8590). Thus, the gospel of Luke is dated in the 80s and the Acts of the Apostles must have been written shortly after the gospel. A group of scholars date Acts before 64 ce on the basis of the traditional view of Lukan authorship and the ending of Acts which mentions Paul's house arrest in Rome but not his martyrdom. The lack of any mention of Paul's death cannot be a determining factor in dating Acts since it can be explained by the author's literary purpose and theological intention. A late dating of Acts, ca. 95100, has also been proposed based on the view that Luke was dependent on Josephus' Antiquties which was published ca. 93. This is a minority opinion. The place of composition is uncertain. It could be Antioch or Rome. Tradition connects Luke with Antioch in Syria. Jerome says the Acts was written in Rome but also suggests other places such as Achaia and Boetia.

Audience . Luke dedicates his two-volume work to Theophilus. There is no reason to doubt that a particular person is meant. The address Luke uses for him, kratiste, indicates a person of high social status. For Luke to write his books with skill and grace, he must have relied on his own financial resources or on the support of a well-to-do person. The dedicatory preface suggests that Theophilus could have been his patron. Luke assumes a shared knowledge between him and his reader. He assumes that the reader has some knowledge of the Christian tradition and can understand his allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. To appreciate his language and literary style, the reader must have had some Hellenistic education. Theophilus could not have been a total outsider to the Christian movement. He could be a recent convert to Christianity, of Jewish or Gentile origin, with a Hellenistic education. Luke certainly did not intend his works only for Theophilus. Following the literary convention of prologue means that he intended his works for a wider audience. Theophilus, thus, also represents the implied readers of Luke-Acts.

Texts and Sources . The early witnesses for the text of Acts fall into two distinct text types: (1) the Alexandrian text represented by p45 p74 Sinaiticus A B C 81, Clement of Alexandria (2) the so-called Western text represented chiefly by D and the fragmentary papyri p29, p38 and p48, Old Latin, the Harclean apparatus, Irenaeus, Cyprian and Augustine. The Western text is about ten percent longer than the Alexandrian text. Notwithstanding its early date, the Western text appears to be secondary and paraphrastic. Generally the more reliable text is the Alexandrian text. In some instances the Western text may preserve an original reading. Each reading must be judged according to its own merits.

The search for the sources of Acts has not been successful primarily because of Luke's tendency to rewrite his sources thoroughly. In the case of the gospel, if we did have the gospel of Mark with which to compare Luke's gospel, it would be very difficult to ascertain that Luke was using Mark as a source. The detection of sources in the case of Acts is even more difficult since there is no standard of comparison. This is not to deny Luke's use of sources for Acts. It is not improbable that he had access to written sources and oral traditions of Christian communities, stories about Peter and Paul, other personalities in Acts such as Philip, Stephen, Cornelius and other converts to the Christian faith. The "wepassages" could have been based on his own experiences or could have come from a missionary travel diary. Although the narrative of Acts 1620 agrees with some facts from 12 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans, it is not likely that Luke made use of Paul's letters in constructing his story. The many points of discrepancy in the places of overlap preclude literary dependence. Not only does Luke not mention Paul's letters, his picture of Paul and his theology does not quite agree either with the portrait and theology of Paul in the letters.

Structure and Content . The story of Acts may be divided according to the stages of the progress of the Christian movement. Some scholars have seen in the summaries of growth (6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20) an indication of the division of Acts into six panels. There are, however, other summaries which make this division questionable. Recognizing the significance of the Jerusalem council some scholars divide Acts into two parts (1:115:35; 15:3628:31).

Jesus' commission to the disciples in Acts 1:8 is considered a key to the development of the narrative in Acts. Its geographical outline shows how this commission is fulfilled in Jerusalem (1:15:42), in Judea and Samaria (6:112:25), and to the end of the earth (13:128:31).

Following the dedication to Theophilus and a summary of the first book (1:12), the prologue provides a background to the narrative of Acts by recalling the final events recounted in the gospel, the appearances, instruction and promise of the Risen Jesus to the disciples. Jesus' response to the disciples' question about the restoration of Israel focuses on what their concern should be. The promise of receiving power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them is coupled with a commission to be witnesses (1:8). After the brief and vivid portrayal of Jesus' ascension, the heavenly messengers challenge the disciples to shift their attention from future concern to present responsibility (1:911).

The Community of Believers in Jerusalem . The story of the believers properly begins after the ascension with the return of the disciples to Jerusalem. The community of the eleven, introduced by name, with Mary, the mother of Jesus, the women and the brothers of Jesus, stay in the upper room and devote themselves to prayer (1:1214). Peter takes the initiative as the leader of the group in the choice of a replacement for Judas Iscariot. The Twelve is reconstituted upon the election of Matthias (1:1526). In fulfillment of Jesus' promise, the disciples receive the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Speaking in tongues, the visible manifestation of this gift, draws reactions of wonder, amazement, doubt and mockery from the crowd. Peter addresses the people and interprets the event in the light of Jesus' resurrection. His proclamation and call to repentance brings about the conversion of three thousand people (2:141). The remarkable increase in the number of believers is followed by a summary description of the life of the community (2:4247). The communal life of the believers is characterized not only by prayer but also by the teaching of the apostles, the fellowship and the breaking of bread. Community solidarity is expressed in the sharing of meals and of possessions. The dynamic impact of the reception of the Holy Spirit is vividly illustrated. From an inconspicuous group gathered in the upper room, the believers now gather in the temple. They begin to witness to Jesus through their communal life and through the signs and wonders of the apostles. The witness of Peter and John is dramatically portrayed in the events that follow (3:14:22). The healing of the lame in the name of Jesus (3:110) provides the occasion for Peter's proclamation. His teaching in the temple draws the attention of the temple authorities. Peter and John are arrested, imprisoned and brought to trial. The trial becomes another opportunity for Peter to bear witness to Jesus (4:812.1920). They are released without punishment after being warned no longer to speak or teach in the name of Jesus (4:17). Peter and John return to the community and their prayer for boldness is granted with a new outpouring of the Spirit (4:2330).

A second portrait of the community of Jerusalem (4:3235) signals a stage in the development of the community. The focus is on the unity of heart and soul of the community manifested in the sharing of possessions. The apostles continue their witness to the resurrection of the Lord (4:33) and take on the role of administrator and distributor of community property. Barnabas' sale of his property is a positive example of the practice of communion of goods. It is done according to the spirit of the community (4:3637) whereas the act of Ananias and Sapphira is tainted with dishonesty (5:111). Their deceit threatens the unity of the community and the credibility of the apostles. Both incur death as punishment when they persist in their deceit even after Peter confronts them. The story of Ananias and Sapphira provides a transition from the theme of communion of goods to the wonders and signs of the apostles, the focus of the third description of the community of Jerusalem (5:1216). This is followed by another dramatic presentation that parallels the plot of Acts 4. This time, not only Peter and John, but all the apostles arouse the jealousy and opposition of the high priest and the Sadducean party. They are arrested but are miraculously released by an angel. They are found by their captors in the morning teaching in the temple, are again arrested and then brought to trial (5:1725). The scene before the council becomes another opportunity to bear witness (5:2932). Heeding Gamaliel's advice, the council releases the apostles after being beaten and charged not to speak in the name of Jesus (5:3340). The episode ends with the picture of the apostles joyfully and boldly proclaiming Jesus as the Christ (5:42).

Judea and Samaria . The transition from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria is provided in the story of the Hebrew and Hellenist widows, the institution of the seven deacons and the ministry of Stephen (6:18:1). The increase of the disciples also leads to a problem. A conflict ensues because of the neglect of the Hellenist widows in the daily distribution. This is solved by the community through the institution of the seven deacons among whom are Stephen and Philip (6:17). Stephen and Philip will be instrumental in the spread of the mission to Judea and Samaria. Stephen's preaching before the council leads to his martyrdom and the disciples are scattered because of the persecution that follows (6:88:3; 11:1921). The scattered disciples continue to preach the word. Philip converts many in Samaria through his preaching and miracles (8:413) and baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch (8:2640). The Samaritan converts receive the Holy Spirit when Peter and John, who are sent by the Jerusalem community, lay their hands on them.

Another significant development is the conversion of a persecutor, Saul, who becomes an active preacher after his conversion (9:122). When his life is threatened, he escapes and comes to Jerusalem. Barnabas brings him to the apostles. Saul continues to preach in the name of the Lord and is sent off to Tarsus when his life is again threatened. Peter, on the other hand, is also drawing converts in Lydda, Sharon and Joppa (9:3243).

To the end of the Earth . The conversion of Cornelius (10:149) is an interesting development because it opens the way for the mission to the Gentiles. The story is narrated three times (11:118; 15:711.14) for emphasis like the threefold repetition of the summary description of the Jerusalem community (2:4247; 4:3235; 5:1216) and the conversion of Saul (9:122; 22:121; 26:123). The story shows how God directs the progress of the Christian movement and how Peter becomes instrumental in the conversion of the first Gentile. The event leads to a conflict as Peter is questioned by the circumcision party. Peter's report to the Jerusalem community silences the objection (11:118). The episode is followed by a reference to the martyrdom of Stephen that results in the geographical spread of the Christian message and the formation and growth of the community in Antioch where the believers are first called Christians (11:1926). The role of Barnabas and Saul in this community and the relation of this community to Jerusalem are also noted (11:2730). The Jerusalem community experiences famine and persecution. James is killed and Peter is arrested. Peter is then miraculously delivered from prison and justice is served when Herod dies (12:123).

Missionary expansion begins with the sending (13:13) of Barnabas and Saul, who becomes known as Paul (13:9). They carry the word of the Lord to Asia Minor (13:414:26) and returning to Antioch, they report missionary success among the Gentiles. The issue of circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic law raised by some men from Jerusalem is resolved in a meeting in Jerusalem. After Peter, Barnabas and Paul narrate what God has done through them among the Gentiles (15:612), James gives his judgment. The decision not to require the Gentile converts to be circumcised is accepted. Judas and Silas are chosen to go to Antioch with Barnabas and Paul and deliver the letter giving the minimum dietary and moral requirements for Gentile converts (15:2229). This decision gives a greater impetus to the Gentile mission. Barnabas and Paul spend some time in Antioch before embarking in another missionary journey. But a conflict between the two over John Mark results in their separation (15:3640). Paul takes Silas with him and from this point onward, he emerges as an independent missionary and the main character in the narrative of Acts. Directed by the Spirit (16:610), he brings the Christian message beyond Asia Minor to Greece (15:4018:22). In his third mission journey (18:2321:16), Paul pays a visit to some of the communities he founded. After winning converts in Ephesus, he heads towards Jerusalem (20:16.22; 21:17). When he reaches Jerusalem and goes to the temple, he is arrested and imprisoned. When he invokes his Roman citizenship and appeals to Roman justice, he is brought to Caesarea before governor Feliz (21:1726:32). Paul stays two years in prison until Felix is succeeded by Porcius Festus. During the trial, Paul makes an appeal to Caesar (25:11) which is granted by Festus. When King Agrippa arrives in Caesarea to welcome Festus, the latter lays Paul's case before the king. King Agrippa declares to Festus Paul's innocence (26:1032) but his appeal to Caesar ironically becomes the obstacle to setting him free. Paul, thus, sails to Rome as a prisoner (27:128:16). The story of Acts ends with Paul in house custody in Rome still proclaiming his witness to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

Bibliography: c. k. barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 1, Preliminary Introduction and Commentary on Acts IXIV (Edinburgh 1994). Vol 2, Introduction and Commentary on Acts XV-XXVIII (Edinburgh 1998). f. f. bruce, The Acts of the Apostles. The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI 1990). j. d. g. dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Peterborough 1996). j. dupont, Nouvelles etudes sur les Actes des Apotres (Paris 1984). j. a. fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York 1998). e. haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Oxford 1971). l. t. johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville 1992). g. ludemann, Early Christianity according to the Traditions in Acts: A Commentary (Minneapolis 1987). j. b. polhill, Acts (The New American Commentary, vol. 26. Nashville, Tennessee 1992). c. h. talbert, Reading Acts. A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (New York 1997). r. c. tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts. A Literary Interpretation, Vol. 2, The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis 1990). j. verheyden, The Unity of Luke-Acts (Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium, 142. Leuven 1999). b. witherington, The Acts of the Apostles. A Sociorhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI 1998).

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Acts of the Apostles

views updated Jun 27 2018

Acts of the Apostles Book of the New Testament describing the spread of the Gospel of Christ immediately after his death and resurrection. It mainly focuses on Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The book was probably written ( 65) by the author of the gospel of St Luke.

Acts of the Apostles

views updated May 23 2018

Acts of the Apostles a New Testament book immediately following the Gospels and relating the history of the early Church, and in particular the missionary journeys of St Paul and others.